Drama at Sea

by Bruce Felknor

Since the time of Homer and before, tales of men against the sea have been dramas or tragedies, not comedies. In October 2002 coincidence brought headlines to the near-death experiences of one supertanker in the Gulf of Aden and one young seafarer in the eastern Pacific on the other side of the world.

Surely many World War II merchant marine veterans who read these stories felt their skin crawl at the reminders of fates they experienced -- or were lucky enough to avoid.

On Sunday, October 6, terrorists steered a remote-controlled boat packed with explosives into the French supertanker Limburg and detonated their boat bomb, blowing a three-foot hole in the tanker's hull and setting her aflame. Some 90,000 barrels of oil rushed out of ruptured tanks near the impact -- two-thirds the capacity of a World War II era T-2 tanker -- and fed the fire and fouled the coast of Yemen. Luckily, only one crew member was killed.

The incident fed headlines for three weeks. While the investigation was going on, a young US Navy sailor on the aircraft carrier USS Constellation was blown overboard by the backdraft from an EA6B Prowler. The electronic countermeasures plane was throttling up for takeoff on a midnight mission, and the sailor was standing on the flight deck behind it.

"SEAMAN SURVIVES 7 HOURS IN OCEAN," one headline read. The Associated Press story said the seaman, Michael Harris of Dillsburg, Pa., spent "seven hours in 62-degree water before being rescued." That was about three hours beyond the point where hypothermia and death would be expected.

Two sailors near Harris vainly tried to grab him, but he was blown past them and over the side, into the ocean 65 feet below. A flare in his life vest didn't work, and he lost his helmet with its stripe that glows in the dark in the fall. He blew repeatedly on the whistle attached to his vest, but no one heard it.

The Constellation and two nearby ships immediately launched air-sea rescue helicopters and rubber boats as they searched the black waters for Harris. Finally, first light dawned, and Harris tore open a container of fluorescent dye that turned the sea around him into a day-glow green. A helicopter quickly spotted him and airlifted him back to his ship.

Despite the seven-hour ordeal in water 36 degrees colder than body temperature, the young sailor survived, and was able to phone the news of his near-calamity and survival to his mother.

Merchant mariners from World War II will recognize the basic situations in both these accounts, perhaps with a shudder: In the Persian Gulf a blast at sea and a flaming tanker; and in the North Pacific a long descent into the cold, dark ocean.

What they will not recognize from their own times of peril are the headlines. Theirs was the anonymous war -- anonymous then for reasons of security; anonymous ever after for reasons of public ignorance and apathy.

That apathy grew out of lack of awareness by the news industry -- in the immediate aftermath of the war -- of the heroism and tragedy of merchant seamen. It grew more profound in succeeding years through ignorance on the part of the entertainment industry -- ignorance of the facts and the stark drama of lightly armed men at war at sea.

Merchant seamen had no cheering section. They were excluded by law from the congressionally chartered veterans organizations. Their numbers were few: 250,000 compared to 13,000,000 Army and Navy veterans for whom the merchant marine was the lifeline.

Visualize the recent headlines if 50 or 70 mariners had been killed on the boat-bombed Limburg. Or if 70 bluejackets had been blown off the Constellation and 50 killed. That is the kind of macabre arithmetic that lurked in the mind of every mariner in World War II. It is the kind of arithmetic that befell the crew -- merchant and navy -- of an American tanker off the Georgia coast one June sixty years before the recent headlines.

SS Esso Gettysburg, a T2 tanker
SS Esso Gettysburg, a T2 tanker

It was a sunny Thursday afternoon, June 10, 1943. The SS Esso Gettysburg, one of the first T-2 tankers, a speedy giant for those days, was ninety miles off the Georgia coast and bound for Philadelphia with crude oil.

A few hundred yards closer to shore was the German U-66, sailing at periscope depth. The boat was one of the five original Wolf Pack boats that had decimated Allied shipping along the US East Coast and on the Caribbean. Her skipper was one of Germany's major aces, Kapitaen-Leutnant Friedrich Markworth, Iron Cross, looking for the fourteenth kill of this long patrol, the next-to-last for the U-66.

Just before 2 PM he gave the order to fire two torpedoes, seconds apart. The first shattered two cargo tanks and the whole ship burst into flames. The second hit the engine room and left the Gettysburg dead in the water, down by the stern, and sinking rapidly. All the lifeboats were engulfed by fire.

No one saw the sub before the two torpedoes, four seconds apart, set her afire and sank her. Flames prevented launching any boats; those who survived jumped overboard, several without time to don life preservers.

Ensign John S. Arnold II and six of his Naval Armed Guard, already at the 3-inch bow gun, spotted the sub and fired on it until the flames drove them overboard. Ensign Arnold was sprayed with burning oil, sustaining third-degree burns on his face, neck, and arms, but continued directing fire until the last moment, for which he was later awarded the Navy Cross.

A burning tanker off the Atlantic coast during World War II
A burning tanker off the Atlantic coast during World War II

Chief Mate Herman Kastberg and several others also went off the bow. While swimming away from the ship, he said, "six of us got together. . . suddenly a shark was among us. As I had previously got rid of my shoes, I felt him brush past my bare feet. Only three of us had life jackets, and we were supporting the other men. The shark circled off toward the ship but came back again and charged. . . . We all kicked and splashed and the shark again swerved away, but a few minutes later he charged again. We repeated the kicking and thrashing in the water and he went off.

James Lane, an acting AB, and a navy gunner, S1c Sherman Doucette, had dived off the stern. "Neither of us had time to get life preservers, and we swam for about five hours. About five minutes after [we] dived into the water and got out of the oil, we saw about fifteen to twenty sharks constantly circling around us, at times disappearing then reappearing; they kept with us all the while. . . . "

Meanwhile, the chief mate's group of six men had gotten well clear of the burning oil around the ship, and they saw other swimmers to the north.

"We hailed them and told them to join us so that we could all keep together. Soon afterward we saw Third Mate Crescenzo towing Ensign Arnold. Finally several other men joined us. We decided to swim closer to the burned out area, figuring that the oil would keep the sharks away.

"This decision was fortunate, as it resulted in our finding two lifeboats that had drifted clear of the flames. Lookout [Maryland]. and I swam toward the boat that seemed usable-lifeboat No. 3. On the way I picked up a navy issue first-aid kit; it belonged in the flare box and had apparently been blown overboard.

"The metal lifeboat was so hot that we had to splash water on it to cool it off. In reality it was just a burned-out hull, and it had shipped a considerable quantity of water. The water saved submerged material from the flames. We found the remains of three bodies in the boat. Largely untouched by the fire were three tanks of water and, in the gear box, a compass and a waterproof case containing a flare pistol and three flares. There was also a piece of tarpaulin.

"We got in, put the bodies overboard, and started to bail the boat out so that she would ride higher in the water. Ten other survivors joined us and got into the boat. Soon afterward, we saw two men approaching; they were Able Seaman Lane and navy gunner Doucette. The navy man was blinded by oil, and we guided him by our voices. This was about four and a half hours after the torpedoing."

There were then fourteen men in the boat.

"Half an hour later we picked up another navy man, Gunner's Mate Third Class Edward S. Graves. He was hanging on to a fog buoy which had drifted away from the ship. His chest hurt him painfully; he had three fractured ribs. This was about 7 P.M., five hours after the disaster. From available pieces of gratings we started to cut crude paddles. We organized ourselves and decided to stay near the scene of the attack until daylight. The bow of the Esso Gettysburg was still above the surface. Her tanks were exploding under water. Then the ammunition magazines exploded.

"We decided that if help did not come by daybreak, we would start for shore. Believing we were one hundred miles off the coast, we figured it would take us fifteen days of paddling to reach land and that by rationing the drinking water we would have enough for thirty days.

"We feared sharks and set watches for the night. Each man was given a drink of water and told he could not have another until daylight. We were drifting in the Gulf Stream faster than the wreck of the Esso Gettysburg. . . .

"We made a bed for Ensign Arnold to keep him as comfortable as possible. He was stoical and uncomplaining, waiting until day- break for treatment of his burns. When there was light enough for me to see clearly he asked me to cut some of the hanging flesh away from the burns. I did this carefully and applied a dressing from the first-aid kit. I also applied it to two other men.

"We continued to make paddles, finally finished them, and set off in a westerly direction. Allowing for a known error of the compass, we laid out a course that would land us at Point Lookout [Maryland].

"About 8:30 A.M., we sighted a plane. It was flying as if to make a grid search, about fifteen miles away. We tried a flare, but it was not usable. We succeeded in firing the second flare, but the plane did not see it and disappeared.

Continuing to paddle, we sighted a ship on the horizon, about eight miles away. Then we saw another plane and fired our third and last flare. The plane saw us and approached. We waved everything we could, and I blinked my flashlight. The plane's lights blinked in recognition and flew on to report to the ship -- the SS George Washington -- which turned toward us.

"When the George Washington came within hailing distance, we were asked what ship we were from and where she was attacked. The skipper did not want to risk stopping and told us to come over, but I called out that it would take us too long to paddle that far. The George Washington then stopped, lowered a boat, and picked us up.

Survivor of another wartime disaster at sea
Survivor of another wartime disaster at sea

"The doctor on board treated the injured men and saved those who were burned from having severe scars. The skipper. Captain Park, asked us whether we wanted to be taken to the nearest port or to the ship's destination, New York. I told him we wanted to be landed as soon as possible on account of the injured men.

"The George Washington put us ashore in Charleston, South Carolina, that night. The navy took care of the seven survivors of the gun crew and the United Seamen's Service took charge of the eight survivors of the Gettysburg: they were fine, giving each of us a complete new outfit and a free telephone call to his home."

Merchant Marine Crew Killed on the Esso Gettysburg, June 10, 1943

Last First Position
Ahquai Frank Pumpman
Argust Marvin Messman
Blaisdell Edgar Henry A.B.
Bryant William Jennings F/W
Bryson Edwart Thomas Oiler
Bulawa Chester A.B.
Carter John McCormick Engine Cadet
Chalker Albert Raymond Cook
Corbin Jack Edwin Oiler
Doughty Ivan Smith Messman
Dunn Daniel David 3rd Engineer
Eerola Kalle A.B.
Flanagan Alfred Messman
Fleming Tenant Lee 1st Engineer
Fullerton Lloyd Henry 2nd Engineer
Harris Arthur Leondise Messman
Hopper Willard John O.S.
Irvin Martin Dreibelbis F/W
Jacobs Joseph Everett Chief Engineer
Johnson Peder A. Master
LaFrance Joseph Oiler
Landron Joseph Jr. Engine Cadet
Lassen Thorlief Cook
Mason Francis Messman
Miller Alphonse Ignatius Deck Cadet
Murphy Paul Edward A.B.
Parlatore Francis Wiper
Petring Walter A.B.
Pound Weston Clyde Kenneth Radio Officer
Rose Orie George Wiper
Sadlon Michael O.S.
Sharkey James Hugh Jr. Purser
Shaw Albion Kingparis Bosun
Teater Charles Leslie A.B.
Wetart Stanley Joseph F/W
Zgoda Alfred Norbert Messman
Zink Glenn Alvin Galleyman

Armed Guard Killed

Last First Rank
Bowen Orlando C. S1c
Boyaji Charles J. S1c
Brothers John J. Cox.
Brown John S1c
Carnes Harold J. S1c
Decker Lester P. S1c
Eary John R. GM3c
Emory [Emery] Howard I. S1c
Encinas Anthony S1c
Engstrom Leroy A. S1c
Fowler L. D. Cox.
Gillespie Donald S. S1c
Graziano Vincent J. S1c
Hannigan John R. S1c
Kalody Walter F. S1c
Livdahl Warren J. S3c
Mayer Rolfe S. S1c
Price Frederick L. GM3c
Rojek Romand M. S1c
Whitley Julius E. GM3c

Merchant Marine Survivors

Last First Rank
Kastberg Herman Chief Mate
Chapman Thomas H. 2nd Mate
Crescenzo Victor 3rd Mate
Weissman Isaac Steward
McDonald Jessie D. A.B.
Lane James R. A.B.
Adams Clyde W. A.B.
Quidort Eugene C. Deck Cadet

Armed Guard Survivors

Last First Rank
Arnold John S. II Ens.
Cain Donald J. S1c
Caruso Sabastiano S1c
Day Julian B. Jr S1c
Doucette Sherman L. S1c
Graves Edward S. GM3c
Lepscier Oliver G. S1c

Ships of the Esso Fleet in World War II
, pp 458-59) Copyright 1946 Standard Oil Company (New Jersey)
The story, with permission, also appears in The U.S. Merchant Marine at War: 1775-1945, Edited by Bruce L. Felknor, Annapolis, Maryland: Naval Institute Press, 1998
Battle Report (The Atlantic War), Cdr. Walter Karig, New York: Farrar & Rinehart, 1946
Convoy: Merchant Sailors at War, 1939-1945, Philip Kaplan and Jack Currie, U.S. Naval Institute Press, 1998

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